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Thirty or so years ago already I read something in a book by Mary Stewart VanLeeuwen and it has stuck with me ever since. She noted that a lot of the traits Jesus most recommends in places like The Beatitudes as well as most all of the spiritual virtues–and Fruit of the Spirit–recommended elsewhere in the New Testament trend toward what in modern society has become associated with feminine personality traits. For good or for ill, as boys and girls are raised, they are socialized in different ways. Boys are subtly–and not-so-subtly–encouraged to be tough, assertive, strong, aggressive. Behaviors prized and rewarded in girls tend to be things like softness, gentleness, meekness as well as an overall willingness generally speaking to be demure and make way for others. When such traits show up in boys, they get labeled as wimpy, sissy, ninny, and weak. The question–or one among a panoply of questions raised by Stewart VanLeeuwen–is how can we encourage ALL people in the church to bear the Fruit of the Spirit when, as a matter of fact, these traits in boys/men are seen as signs of an unwelcome femininity? It’s been decades since I heard her raise this question. I am pretty sure we don’t have a good answer yet.
I was reminded of this recently when a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Thomas Edsall detailed some recent survey findings by the Public Religion Research Institute. I was particularly struck by the responses to the question that asked people to agree or disagree with the statement “Society as a whole has become too soft and feminine.” Of all demographic groups surveyed, only one group rang up a slim majority of agreement with this statement and that group was those who identified as white evangelical Protestants (53% agreed with the statement). People who prefer a given candidate don’t make up a demographic per se but those who identified as Trump supporters (and that also includes about 80% of evangelicals) agreed that society is too soft and feminine at a rate of 68%. These same people in the survey were also asked to agree or disagree with “It bothers me when I come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English.” Again, 64% of white evangelicals agreed, higher than any other demographic (and again with 77% of Trump supporters agreeing with the statement too).
Of course we need to be clear that the survey did not ask if “the church” was too soft and feminine only “society” in general. And perhaps if that question about the church were asked of the same people, you might not get a majority agreement. But I wonder . . . People who scorn softness in society are likely to carry this over to church life, too. And Christians are Christian wherever they go and so their Christianity ought to be in the driver’s seat when they encounter the “alien within your gates” whose English may not be very good. And yet two-thirds of white evangelicals said such encounters make them feel “bothered,” which probably also indicates they are unlikely to show gentleness, meekness, respect, and all the rest when face to face with people whose presence feels unwelcome and uncomfortable somehow.
There is sufficient confusion in this country between flag and cross, nation and gospel that I suspect a false gospel of hairy-chested macho manliness is being promulgated in too many churches. Those who sneer at softy sissy types in society while sipping coffee at the local diner on Friday morning are unlikely to prize such traits in themselves or others when sitting in the church pew on Sunday morning. In fact, if you listen to the comments of the swaggering evangelical leaders who have injected themselves into this year’s presidential race–a couple of whom have proudly indicated they are gun-toting swaggering evangelical leaders at that–and if you pass those comments through the filter of what Jesus and Paul and others hold out in the New Testament as the ideal of discipleship, you will almost certainly find good reason to be highly distressed at what’s happening to the Christian witness in this land.
When the Fruit of the Spirit get scorned as weak and feminine and soft, our ability to be transparent to the Savior is imperiled if not outright trounced. I know what Paul would say. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8). And he wrote that in the same letter that includes the classic list of The Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. So I think we know what kind of gospel and what kind of discipleship Paul had in mind. Do we?